A little bourbon flavored with shellfish, would you like it?
It might sound like the idea of a mad distiller’s joke – remember the SNL skit about wacky hard seltzers? – but it’s a real thing. Specifically, it’s Crab Trapper, a green crab-flavored whiskey from New Hampshire-based adventurer Tamworth Distilling.
And guess what? In fact, it delivers on its unpleasant promise in a tasty way.
I drank the whiskey last week while vacationing in Granite State and visited the distillery in its namesake town – a picture-perfect community sandwiched between mountain and seaside locations. lake. I had heard of Tamworth by previously sampling its venison-flavored whiskey, aptly called Deerslayer, but when an employee showed me the Crab Trapper, I had to do a double take. Or to quote my reaction: “You must be (beep) joking.”
But I quickly took my sample glass to the waterfront area of the distillery and discovered the strange pleasures of shellfish-flavored bourbon. You definitely get a bite of crab here – Tamworth says his recipe calls for creating a broth of shellfish, then mixing it with his bourbon. The crab flavor is however expertly balanced by the sweetness of the whisky. There’s also a lingering note of savory spice, reminiscent of classic Old Bay seasoning.
Overall, it’s like having a messy old Maryland crab dinner, but in a not-so-messy liquid form. Except in Maryland, you’ll find blue crabs, while Tamworth whiskey is made with green crabs, an invasive species that has become a problem along the New England coast.
Unlike their blue-colored brethren, green crabs don’t produce much meat, so there’s no real market for them – at least as a main course – and therefore no way to control the population. That’s why some smart people, including a dedicated team at the University of New Hampshire who worked with Tamworth, are looking for other edible uses. Why not a whisky?
It all makes a heckuva story. So it’s perhaps no surprise that green crab whiskey has become a viral sensation, covered in outlets ranging from Food & Wine to CBS News. I get it: there’s a shock factor here that’s hard to ignore.
Still, it’s important to bring some context to shellfish-flavored bourbon. For starters, it’s not as new an idea as one might think, say those in the alcohol business. “Mezcal has been doing it for years,” says Jared Bailey, a spirits expert who is general manager of New York’s Soho Cigar Bar. Bailey is referring to pechuga, a style of Mexican spirit that can be flavored with chicken, duck, or maybe even wild rabbit. (I tried a version a few years ago.)
Additionally, there has been quite a bit of experimentation in the spirits industry in recent years. Think finished Scotch in special barrels (or, for that matter, finished tequila in barrels of Scotch). Or think of orange flavored Irish whiskey. The reason so many distillers are going this route? In part, they simply take inspiration from the world of food, which has embraced new and unusual flavors. (How about a dollop of bagel-flavored ice cream?)
Distillers are also aware of the competitive landscape, which means they know there is a lot of competition for space on liquor store shelves. In the Scotch category alone, we have gone from a small number of popular blended whiskeys – basically, Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s and a few others – to a showroom of single malts. Thus, innovation becomes almost a means of survival. “It takes a lot to be able to stand out from the crowd,” says Noah Rothbaum, author of several spirits books and executive at Flaviar, an online membership club for spirits enthusiasts.
There is a risk with innovation, of course. I mean, while I liked Tamworth’s crab-flavored whisky, I didn’t think much of its venison-flavored liquor. (The main problem? I just haven’t tasted the meat.) And there are some products that look commercial to me. (Generally speaking, I’m wary of any whiskey that seems to taste like Jolly Rancher candy.)
That’s a point echoed by Mark Emil Hermansen, CEO of Empirical, a cutting-edge spirits brand that specializes in what some call free-form alcohol, meaning spirits that don’t fit into any category. defined (such as whisky, gin, vodka, etc.). Even though Empirical pushes the envelope — it recently released SOKA, a spirit made from sugarcane juice — it also sticks to a hard and fast rule, Hermansen says. “If it’s not delicious, it’s not going anywhere,” he says.
Which brings us back to Crab Trapper. Matt Power, a distiller at Tamworth, says the sudden fuss over whiskey took him by surprise. Originally the spirit was meant to be a limited edition offering, but now he suspects otherwise. “I feel like we’re going to win a lot more than we expected,” he said.